The most polarizing song of the 90’s? No doubt one of the biggest hits. But what if I told you that the song has been completely misinterpreted by the masses since its release. “Shiny Happy People” is really about depression? Whoops. Not that one. I’m talking about “Losing My Religion.” R.E.M.’s 5 minute magnum opus or is it an opus grande? We’ll dig into that later. I’m also here to tell you that Out of Time contains quite possibly my favorite R.E.M. song and it’s not even sung by Michael Stipe. So much intrigue….
R.E.M. set out to make a record “Out of Time” with their past albums and current mainstream music. Exhausted physically and creatively from relentless touring and other work, the members decided to all switch instruments on the record and produce a non-touring studio album. This was a big risk given their recent switch to a major label. That risk would be handsomely rewarded. Out of Time would win the Grammy for Best Alternative Album and “Losing My Religion” would win Best Pop Performance.
I was in 6th grade at my small Catholic elementary school when “Losing My Religion” hit the radio. The song was an immediate sensation. A bizarre 5 minute mandolin led pop song with no true chorus that seemed to challenge the construct of organized religion. Accompanied by an exceptional music video (which also won a Grammy) that seemed to compound the song’s secular message. Not since Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” had I seen a song cause such a stir. But here’s the rub…the song isn’t about religion at all. It’s quite simply a love song or rather a song for the dumped. “Losing My Religion” is colloquial for being at the end of one’s rope. A scorned lover obsessed with another. The WHOLE album is just 11 love songs. However, music and art is for our own interpretation. I was one of the duped, but the track was extremely comforting to me as I was struggling with my own interpretations of faith and the spiritual realm. Hell, pun intended, I still am.
The album opens with what sounds like a standard R.E.M. pop song until KRS-One starts rapping over the track. Precursor for a different record than what we are used to from the group.”Near Wild Heaven” is the first track with Mike Mills on vocals, something I always look forward to on R.E.M. albums. Spoiler alert, his vocal track “Texarkana,” which comes later in the album, is the previously mentioned favorite of mine. Stipe got the spotlight but Mills was the backbone for me. I don’t feel the need to spend much time on “Shiny Happy People.” It’s a goofy but fun ubiquitous track. I’m here for the harmonies on “Belong.” “Half A World Away” is a beautiful broken hearted ballad, echoing sentiments on “Low” and “Me In Honey.”
Flourishing through re-invention. Ruts are inevitable. R.E.M. proves how a little change can produce a pretty substantial improvement over time, an opus grande. Fortunately, their opus grande led to a magnum opus. I think that makes sense. I dunno, I’m losing my religion writing about this album….
Favorite Tracks: “Texarkana” “Losing My Religion” “Near Wild Heaven” “Half A World Away”
Pressing: Warner Bros. Records – 7599-26496-1, Warner Bros. Records – WX 404 - Europe Original. 1991